Cree curator Gerald McMaster reflects on how an Indigenous lens can change how we see art
Throughout his long career, Cree curator and artist Gerald McMaster has kept notebooks as convenient places to record thoughts, compose texts and make sketches.
There are about 70 of them now showing at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, part of a small display to acknowledge McMaster’s recent honour: a Governor General’s Award in visual and media arts. A few of the notebooks are open to show pages of dense writing and precise drawings of faces, bodies and a series of moccasins, alongside his notations. “It’s my curatorial life on display through these notebooks. Writing and drawing were so synonymous for me, just putting something on paper,” McMaster said in a recent interview.
Writing and drawing – or language and image – are also closely linked in his critical thinking, as he has worked to establish an Indigenous approach to seeing and showing art. “Language helps us to conceptualize the world,” said McMaster, who grew up speaking Plains Cree on the Red Pheasant First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan.
“We see the world through this linguistic lens. And so if we’re speaking English and learning only Western art history, we are going to see the world through that lens. The work that I’ve been doing is to try to go back to original languages to see what’s in them.” This philosophy can have very practical implications. At the Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto, where McMaster recently retired from teaching, it means courses in Canadian art start long before Europeans arrived.
“If you come to Canada, it is an Indigenous lens through which you are going to be seeing, and being presented with. I think that’s the direction which we’ve been moving toward. It’s exciting because it’s much richer.”
And it can have critical implications. McMaster had always thought the Cree word, tapasinahike, which he had known since childhood, just meant “drawing.” But researching the language as an adult, he realized there were subtleties not contained in the English translation. Tapasinahike might be better translated as making a truthful mark or doing something in a truthful way.